Male, female athletes in MCSD must be treated — and funded —fairly, discrimination settlement says

Debbie Ball discusses Title IX and opening doors

Retired coach and Shaw High athletic director Debbie Ball will be inducted into the Georgia High School Coaches Hall of Fame
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Retired coach and Shaw High athletic director Debbie Ball will be inducted into the Georgia High School Coaches Hall of Fame

The Muscogee County School District must ensure boys’ and girls’ sports are equitably funded as part of the settlement of a federal lawsuit that alleged gender discrimination.

Turena Tante, the mother of a Northside High School softball player, sued MCSD in May 2018 on behalf of her daughter in the Columbus Division of the Middle District of Georgia.

The settlement also requires MCSD to pay the plaintiff’s attorney fees and costs totaling $90,000 to the Schiller Law Firm of Cookeville, Tennessee. Northside High School’s athletics facilities must also be upgraded within the next year, according to the settlement.

The lawsuit accused the school district of violating Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and the Equal Protection Clause in the constitution’s 14th Amendment by discriminating against Tante’s daughter, based solely on her gender, in the following areas:

Funding of athletics.

Provision of equipment and supplies.

Per diem in the form of pregame meals.

Assignment and/or compensation of coaches.

Provision of locker rooms and facilities for practice and competition.

Provision of training facilities and services.

Tante wanted MCSD to be required to provide her daughter with the treatment and benefits equivalent to what the school district provides the boys’ teams, as well as “monetary relief in order to compensate her for her damages” resulting from MCSD’s alleged discrimination. Those sought damages included expenses for equipment and supplies not incurred by parents of male MCSD athletes, plus damages associated with “reduced opportunities to obtain college athletic scholarships.”

But the only dollar figure mentioned in the settlement is for the attorney fees and costs. Instead, MCSD agreed to actions and commitments that don’t specify financial expenses but certainly will incur some:

Girls’ and boys’ sports “shall be supported equitably, as provided for by Title IX, and funded on a gender-neutral basis regardless of the source of funding, whether school funds, contributions from boosters, or other third-party donations.”

MCSD “shall not permit any infusion of non-school monetary or non-monetary contributions to result in sports programs which are inequitable under Title IX.”

MCSD “shall ensure that the Northside High School softball program is provided the following treatment and benefits equivalent to what is provided for the baseball program, on or before Aug. 1, 2020”: a new locker room, a coaches office and adequate storage with electrical power and water in the new building attached to the indoor hitting facility; a press box behind home plate; a public address system; a backstop with foundation and padding; enclosed dugouts with screening, plus hooks, bat racks, helmet racks and “pro baseball style” benches in the home dugout; “sufficient” spectator seating; bullpens; drainage provided by the city as needed; a pitching machine; new scoreboard, irrigation system provided by the city as needed; equivalent access to equivalent maintenance equipment; lighting; security lights; signage.

Northside’s softball and baseball team members “shall be treated in the same manner with respect to meals.”

MCSD will provide equipment, supplies and uniforms “in a gender-neutral manner” to Northside students who participate in school-sponsored sports.

MCSD “shall cooperate” with the Northside softball program “to ensure that the indoor hitting facility is completed by Aug. 1, 2020.”

MCSD “shall ensure exclusive use of the softball field during softball season equivalent to that of the baseball program” and that the “condition of the baseball and softball fields at the beginning of their respective seasons are equivalent.”

MCSD “shall ensure” Northside female athletes “have equivalent use of the weight rooms” as compared to Northside male athletes.

MCSD “shall ensure” coaches of Northside female teams “receive formal training regarding the value of strength and conditioning and proper weight lifting technique for female athletes” and the weight rooms “shall have weight training equipment appropriate for use by females.”

MCSD “acknowledges its obligation to select coaches” for all Northside teams “using the same criteria and with the same motivation to attract qualified and skilled coaches.”

MCSD “must ensure” all Northside coaches “receive equivalent pay based on gender neutral factors.”

MCSD “shall ensure that coach to athlete ratios are equivalent for girls’ sports as compared to boys’ sports.”

MCSD “shall ensure” Northside softball players “are provided equivalent access to and practice time with their coaches” as compared to Northside baseball players.

The nine-member Muscogee County School Board unanimously approved the settlement during Monday night’s meeting. No board members publicly commented on the settlement before the 8-0 vote. District 8 representative Philip Schley was absent. Board chairwoman Pat Hugley Green said the board discussed the settlement in closed session.

Tante or her lawyers weren’t reached for comment before this story’s deadline, but a retired MCSD coach who was the district’s first female athletics director (2006-08 at Shaw) expressed a victorious feeling in a Facebook post reacting to the news.

Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Famer Debbie Ball, who coached softball for 30 years at Shaw, posted on Facebook, “I never thought I would live long enough to see this occur in our school system. .... Thank you Mrs. Tante. .... Title IX has been the law since 1973. ... It is sad that our school system is just now, in 2019, being ordered by the courts to fulfill this law.”

Ledger-Enquirer staff writer Mark Rice covers education and other issues related to youth. He also writes feature stories about any compelling topic. He has been reporting in Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley for more than a quarter-century. He welcomes your local news tips and questions.